A Rare 16th-century Violin Fit for a King
National Music Museum receives the rarest of gifts
The exceptional collection of stringed instruments by members of the Amati family at the National Music Museum, on the campus of the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, South Dakota, has received an important new addition: a violin by brothers Antonio and Girolamo Amati, dated 1595 and painted with the armorials and motto of King Henry IV of France (1553–1610). The inscription, “Henry IV by the grace of god King of France and Navarre,” is painted on the ribs.
The donation was made on May 14 to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Henry's assassination
A grand opening for the violin, to be displayed with a violin case from the time of Louis XVI, will take place sometime this fall. In the meantime, the museum is creating a series of technical drawings of the instrument.
The arrival of Henry IV’s violin could be considered something of a family reunion—by 1595, a connection between the Amati and the French monarchy was long established. The South Dakota museum owns “The King” cello, c. 1538, which became part of a set of 38 instruments delivered to Charles IX in 1560. That set remained intact until the French Revolution of 1798. Also, the museum’s Andrea Amati viola is painted with the monogram of Henry’s grandmother, Marguerite of Angoulême.
It’s believed that a second set of instruments was commissioned from Andrea Amati on the occasion of Henry’s first marriage in 1572.
The newly donated Henry IV violin is in good, but, like most instruments of its age, not completely original, condition. “The scroll is good,” says Arian Sheets, the museum’s curator of stringed instruments. The back and ribs are original but the top was replaced long ago. Whether it was an existing Cremonese top from another violin or one made for this instrument as a repair is not yet known. As the technical drawing proceeds, "We are learning more about it all the time," Sheets says. Dendrochronological analysis shows a 90% correlation to top wood used by Andrea Guarneri, who worked in Cremona a generation later and almost certainly got it from the Amati workshop according to violin expert and dealer Claire Givens who serves on the museum's board of directors.
The violin was passed to a courtier and favorite of Henry’s, François de Bassompierre, and later belonged to J.B. Cartier, violinist to Queen Marie Antoinette and author of L’Art du Violon, a mammoth treatise that saved many pieces, including “The Devil’s Trill,” from oblivion.
Since 1964, violin has belonged to the Copernicus Foundation, a Polish cultural organization that owns several fine instruments, according to Sheets. For many years it was loaned to players, but Givens and restorer Andrew Dipper, who have served as caretakers for the instrument for many years, became increasingly worried about the fragile condition of the painting on the back. Given its historical importance, they recommended that it no longer be played.
Givens realized that it would be an excellent addition to the museum’s collection. Fellow board member Kevin Schieffer donated the funds for its purchase in celebration of the birth of his and his wife’s second child.
For more about the National Music Museum’s outstanding collection, visit usd.edu/smm.